He goes by both. Whether “Buddy,” the two-syllable synonym for pal, or the more mature-sounding “Bud,” the single-syllable term for what is young and unfinished, both fit. Bud McElroy, at 39, seems easygoing and uncomplicated. He likes to talk about having fun. He smiles a lot. And if he heard himself described as a complex man — maybe even a driven one — he’d laugh. “Who, me?” he’d ask.
Except for two years of missionary work and a stint in the service, McElroy has always lived in Chula Vista, in the same house he now shares with his wife and four children. Years ago it was brown; now it’s painted gray with white trim. McElroy did some brick work out back, sank a flagpole into the front yard, and hoisted the American flag.
Inside, the house is comfortable and unassuming. The living room is a jumble of fall-into-it furniture. On the hearth, a green parakeet named Paulie breaks into song. His twittering high notes scissor the air and bounce off the wall on which hang World War II memorabilia, replica portions of the American flag with blue and gold stars. The code, he explains, was devised during the Civil War. Sixty years ago, the flags were set in windows to indicate, according to the number of stars, how many in that household were serving in the military. A blue star accounted for those who were living, gold was for the dead.
McElroy transferred to night school in his senior year at Montgomery High School. He’d found a day job delivering furniture and was saving money to go on his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For two years after graduation he walked door-to-door delivering the Mormon vision of hope and redemption through parts of Colorado and the New England states. Next he enlisted in the Marines and served six years, then went on to the Army Reserves. He later signed up for active duty and was in Berlin in 1989 when the wall came down. Reenlisting in the Army Reserves, he continues to give a weekend every month and a couple of weeks each year.
In 1990, McElroy joined the Federal Fire Department of San Diego. With his one-day-on/one-day-off schedule, he uses his free time to speak to young people about the dangers of drugs (“It’s your future, why blow it?”). Otherwise he might be filling orders for the custom-made surfboards he designs and makes in his garage. He has hobbies — like collecting wartime memorabilia — he makes time for his kids, and he’s a faithful member of his church. A moderate Republican, he talks about going into politics one day. And he might. Since September 25, 1993, McElroy has worked hard to keep his options open. That day — the most important one of his life — he came close to collecting his gold star.
“I’d done some professional off-road racing and was preparing for ‘Baja 1000,’ a thousand-mile run, with a shakedown session.”
Neighbors and friends had traveled the 90 miles to the desert with McElroy and his wife. Tina McElroy, dark-haired and perky, was all smiles. It was her birthday and she was excited. McElroy was feeling the grip of adrenaline that always hit before a race. He’d never driven the Plaster City series before. The race offered ideal conditions to learn how smoothly his transmission ran, if his suspension was spongy, whether there was sloppy play in the steering.
Tina settled in with friends at the start/finish line. A hubbub of activity surrounded the pit crews and race officials. Bob Hines (known as “Radio Bob” to his fans) was doing radio dispatch under a B.F. Goodrich banner. The sky over the Yuma Desert was cloudless, a bleached blue that rose high and endless.
Racers went six times around a 30-mile loop. McElroy was counting upon his map-man, 70-year-old Ed McClain, to keep him on track. Their aluminum-bodied, tubular-framed “Class 9” car was painted white with red-and-blue stripes. It was funnel-nosed. The engine was in the rear.
Every 30 seconds, the green flag came down: they were ninth out of the line. Shifting easily, his foot on the gas, McElroy whipped past one car after another. Number 999, their car, was running well. One lap and McElroy was up to third place. Halfway through the second loop, just as he was ready to pass the second man, the car stalled and lost all power. McElroy rolled as far as he could, pulled the brake, and got out. Hugging the side of the car, he edged around to the rear. Ed McClain stayed put, belted in the passenger seat. Cars roared past. There was no wind that day. The dust that the cars kicked up hung low.
Bill Hernquist saw neither the man nor the car when he hit them. The impact was so great that, inside the car, Ed McClain was knocked out cold.
“This was after he nailed me,” said McElroy. “I went flying 50 feet and hit the ground. Everything went black...”
McElroy is 5´8.˝ Women call him cute. This has as much to do with his boyish style as his youthful looks. (His head of graying hair looks premature.) His features fold easily into a smile. Like his laugh, his grins are various; now it is over-bright; he’s a guy who has told his story before.
“You wanna know why everything went black?” He laughs. “Because I landed on my stomach with my face in a pile of dirt.”
Desert dirt, so fine that it had the consistency of flour. McElroy rolled over and looked up. “And I see that I’m back on the race course. I get to my knees, and I’m trying to stand, because, you can understand, I want out of there...”
He was in shock and didn’t know his right leg, between the knee and foot, was in pieces. By now Bill Hernquist had jumped out of his car and run over. Hernquist, chunky in his dark racing suit, stood over him.
“Bud! Stop! You can’t get up!”
“You kiddin’ me?” McElroy looked up at him. He remembers squinting at the sunlight. Hernquist was a silhouette against blue sky while Bud, struggling to stand, was a floundering figure in a red racing suit. “I’m not getting run over twice in one day!” he shouted.
But McElroy had seen the alarmed expression in his friend’s eyes. Regaining consciousness, Ed McClain staggered free from their car. The transmission and rear tire had been torn away and wrapped around the front.
“Bud!” cried the map-man. “Your leg!”
The skin was split up to the knee, muscle and flesh gone from the bone. Dan Anderson rushed over. Known as “Rescue Dan” for his long-time service as a volunteer on the rescue team, he was already talking to radio dispatch, calling for a medical evacuation immediately. By now a dozen men were on the scene. McElroy was losing a lot of blood. Anderson handed over his radio and knelt beside the racer.
“I’m going to have to tourniquet that leg.”
“Below the knee!” McElroy shouted. When a tourniquet is tied, everything below the pressure point is deprived of blood and likely to be sacrificed. McElroy knew this. “Make sure and put it below the knee!”
“Radio Bob” told Anderson he’d made contact with the Medivac people; they wanted somebody on the scene to authorize the pickup.
“Otherwise, they aren’t coming.”
McElroy overheard and said to tell them there was a firefighter here who says there’s a guy in trouble and they need to get to him quick. McElroy was, of course, the firefighter, and he was the guy.
A few men diverted the run, with racers forced to detour some 15 yards; others were watching Anderson with McElroy; some were checking their watches and looking up at the desert sky. Would the “Life-Flight” copter make it in time? Twenty miles away, Tina was told of the accident but not of its seriousness.
“Here’s the funny part,” McElroy recalls, laughing. “Somebody used a board to shade me from the sun because it’s so hot out there but the sun is beating down on my leg and that’s what’s getting hot. And I mean really hot.”
Sheared to the bone, the flesh was raw and bleeding. Unshaded, his leg was on fire.
By the time the copter set down, grit rising in an angry skirt, McElroy was lying in a blackish puddle of his own blood. His blood pressure read 38 over 0 (a normal reading is 110 over 70). Firefighters know their blood type. He murmured that his was A-negative; then, as they shunted him onto a backboard and into the copter, he sent a last message to his wife. He’d broken his leg, he said, and was going to have it fixed.
Somewhere in flight or at the UCSD Trauma Center in San Diego, the medical team cut away his nylon racing suit and discovered his femur protruding from his upper thigh. They stuck IVs in his groin and neck, then fed four units of blood directly into the arteries that went to his heart.
“I looked like a 50-50 ice cream bar, half-vanilla, half-chocolate.” He laughed again.
His right side was black and blue; when he first got hit, McElroy fell onto his right side then slapped down hard against the hood of Hernquist’s car before being sent flying.
He was in surgery for 14 hours, in the critical care unit for three days, and at the trauma center itself for ten days.
Every effort was made to save the leg. As one surgeon explained, he could keep it, but two to three years of reconstructive surgery would be required, using the muscles from his stomach and back. In the end, he would still have a “slap foot.” The alternative, it was explained, was amputation, and he’d be walking in three months. Three years versus three months. It was, he said, an easy call.
“Go ahead,” he told them. “Cut it off.”
Surgery took place at Kaiser Permanente. Amputees are likely to have the date of their surgery engraved on their minds. McElroy was quick to name the date of the accident as well as when he got his first prosthetic limb (January 15, 1994), yet he cannot name the date of his amputation.
A flash of green and Paulie, flitting from one side of his cage to the other, breaks into song.
“It was somewhere in the first week of October, but it wasn’t a big deal.”
Following surgery, he was fixed with a morphine drip to medicate himself. As soon as his mind cleared, he stopped taking the morphine; he didn’t want to get hooked. He was treated with other pain medication. Depression is a familiar emotional response to amputation, but McElroy claims he had none. He was having too much fun to feel low, he said. Just before a nurse came in to take his temperature, he’d stick ice in his mouth and throw the reading off.
“Stupid stuff like that, but I was having a ball.”
That is, until he’d get hit with a pain so intense he could only double over. It was as if someone were stabbing him. These were his severed nerve endings. Later, as the pain receded, he’d feel like his foot was on ice or stuck in a bucket. He still gets phantom sensations on occasion. He’ll feel a cramp in the arch of his foot that is no longer there.
On October 25, exactly one month after the accident, he was wheeled out of Kaiser Permanente Hospital. Plastic surgeons grafted skin onto his leg. He was fitted for his prosthetic and in mid-January stood up on two legs. His stump felt tender.
“I knew I was on two legs. I was glad I was standing. But the muscles had to get accustomed to an artificial device. I’d call it a ‘sweet’ hurt, because I knew the pain would go away.”
At home he started pushing himself right away. That was when he painted the house and laid brick. He kept busy.
“Something like that happens, and you realize how precious life is. I wanted to live it to the fullest.”
(On the second anniversary of losing his leg, McElroy participated in a three-person triathlon sponsored by the Navy SEALs. One member of his team, an above-knee amputee, swam the mile; a woman with a below-the-knee amputation ran the 13-mile leg of the race; McElroy biked 56 miles.)
McElroy went on 911-phone dispatch at the 32nd Street station. Firefighters who have suffered heart attacks or have backs “blown out” are certified to return to work on the written recommendation of one doctor through the occupational health office. When he walked across the parking lot and into the Federal Fire Department offices at the Naval Training Center, McElroy had in hand the written approval of three prosthetists and two doctors.
In the office, the desk calendar read March 24, 1994.
Rosie Robinson was behind her desk. A brown-skinned, middle-aged woman, she looked up and smiled broadly.
“Well, McElroy! You look great! Why, I can’t even tell you had an accident. Which leg is it?”
“It was my left.”
“Oh, really!” She eyed the left leg. “Well, you’d sure never know.”
“I was only having a little fun with you, Rosie. Actually it’s my right.”
“McElroy, now which one is it?”
“My right, honest!”
He lifted the cuff of his pants to show the prosthetic built from carbon fiber and titanium, with a VSP-flex foot and an acrylic black composite plastic sheath.
Civil Service employees are processed through the Occupational Health Office on North Island. Rosie suggested that McElroy make an appointment. Just then he spotted his chief passing down the hallway.
The man stepped inside the office. “So you’re back, McElroy.” They shook hands.
“Chief, I’m back and I’m ready to work.”
The chief explained to McElroy that the department had never had a person like him on staff before.
“I think we’re going to want you to take an agilities test and maybe see a doctor.”
McElroy had his papers in hand. “Chief, I’ve already been to Occupational Health, and they didn’t find anything wrong.”
McElroy says the chief still wanted him to take an agilities test and to see another doctor.
“Chief, I’ve got five statements,” McElroy recalls saying. “Two doctors and three prosthetists. They say I’m fine to go back to work.”
That was when, McElroy says, the chief lost his temper. McElroy says the chief pointed his finger at McElroy and yelled, “I don’t give a damn what your doctors are telling you. I’m telling you what I want! You’re different, and the sooner you realize that the better off you’ll be.”
McElroy remembers hearing the distant drone of airplanes cutting across the sky. He remembers Rosie was silent at her desk. All complaints about discrimination pass through Rosie’s office, which she’d decorated with images of African pride and Christian devotion. For the first time, McElroy says, he understood what it meant to be disabled. But it was a definition others were imposing on him. He wondered: was he being discriminated against?
McElroy made an appointment to see Frank Golbransen, the orthopedic surgeon at UCSD. Once a top Army surgeon, the big ruddy Swede specialized in amputations. Golbransen passed him. As for the agilities test, he’d already taken the test to get his job back. He knew of no one who had to take the test a second time. But the chief was clear.
The Federal Fire Service requires that all applicants for firefighting take the Physical Agilities Test. McElroy says some of the test involved hoisting a fully charged (filled with water) 11˝ hose across his shoulders, running up to a 6-foot wall, tossing the hose over the wall, then climbing the wall and picking up the hose. Other challenges included carrying the charged hose while running toward and climbing a 30-foot ladder; while walking across a 10-foot-long, 6-inch-wide balance beam; and while running through a series of rubber tires.
In March, after an absence of more than six months, McElroy returned to the firehouse. In April he received medical approval to return to firefighting. In May he passed his first agilities test. Now a fire room was set up for his second test.
McElroy remembers the asphalt was blistering hot on North Island that June afternoon. He wore his full firefighter gear with breathing apparatus and an oxygen tank on his back. He was carrying a two-inch fully charged hose (with one gallon of water weighing eight pounds, the hose weighed hundreds of pounds). He approached the building for what is called an “initial attack.”
McElroy says several fire officials were watching from a distance: a battalion chief, an assistant chief, a representative from the union (the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local No. F-33), and an engine captain who served as proctor.
“Who’s going in with me?” McElroy said, looking around.
Carrying the hose, he went into the building darkened to approximate a smoke-filled room (called “the black room”).
“I found the ‘victim,’ ” McElroy says he called out. “What do you want me to do?”
The “victim,” a dummy, had been stashed inside the room. In this test, the fireman was expected to locate it and bring it out. The proctor, he said, told him to bring it out.
“What about the hose?”
“Bring that out too.”
He did it — and more. He “laddered” a building — usually a two-man job — pulling a 35-foot extension ladder off a truck and setting it up against a building.
He passed this second test (and with it was returned to active, full-time service). He also filed an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint in which he argued that he’d been discriminated against. But federal employees, he learned, are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge threw his complaint out.
The next year, 1996, the Lions Clubs of San Diego voted McElroy Firefighter of the Year. He was also the country’s first one-legged professional firefighter as well as the only one-legged Infantry soldier in the Army Reserves.
“McElroy is so great.”
Officer Peggy Anderson coordinates the DARE program (Drug Awareness, Resistance, and Education) run by the San Diego Police Department. Sixth graders are told the hazards of drug use. McElroy, a longtime volunteer for the program, is one of their most sought-after speakers.
“He stands up in front of these kids and their parents, and he tells them they can do anything they want, if they want. And they believe him.”
Anderson, blonde and petite in her police officer’s gear, recalled one woman who had been badly burned when she was young.
“She was at the DARE graduation with her son and heard McElroy speak. She was crying when she told me that afterwards she bought a pair of shorts and wore them. She was dealing with her feelings of shame about her legs. McElroy had helped to change her life.”
The work is important and reflects well on the department, says McElroy; that’s why he does it. But because he has been ordered to use his personal time when he speaks at DARE events, he feels he’s being penalized for his contribution.
Officer Anderson and others have sent letters of appreciation to the department. Letters of this sort routinely pass across the chief’s desk, where they’re affixed with an endorsement letter.
“But some of the letters,” said McElroy, “get to me after an eight-month delay. Sometimes there’s no endorsement letter. People tell me they’ve written letters, and sometimes I don’t get them.”
McElroy likes to say that being disabled means an inability to do what you were able to do before. He hasn’t found what that is yet. Then he’ll lift his trouser cuff and expose the black sheath of his prosthetic limb. “But I know what it’s like to be black and to be discriminated against.”
The same year he was voted firefighter of the year, he requested promotion to engineer. He was denied. McElroy applied again and a third time. He was not invited to interview on either occasion.
Firemen who seek promotion are now required to hold the EMT (emergency medical technician) certificate. The chief sent word to the department that he wanted his people certified. McElroy was scheduled to take the first class offered, but a scheduling conflict with his Army Reserves weekends forced him to cancel.
McElroy says he was awaiting a reschedule when he learned that no more classes were being offered. Now to get certified (which means enrollment in a three-credit, full semester’s class at a local junior college), he will have to pay for it himself and use his own time.
“I refused because by now it’s a matter of principle.” For two years the chief said new classes would be arranged for those who wanted to get certified. “I’m still waiting,” McElroy said.
In March, a 60 Minutes segment ran about people with disabilities. In it a priest with one arm said he’d found that people were often terrified of his disability. “Just looking at me,” he said, “having me around, reminded them that the world is an uncertain place. I scare them to death.”
Over the mantel in his living room, McElroy has hung a picture of Christ, white-robed and kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, deep in prayer, his hands are clenched as he looks up at a black nighttime sky. The biblical account of this moment, found in Matthew 26:39, reads, “And He went a little further, and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will but as Thou wilt.”
Twenty years ago, when he was serving as a Mormon missionary, McElroy wrote in his Bible, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” He believes that today and shared his thoughts with his DARE audience at a recent speech he gave for students at Del Mar Hills Elementary School.
“We are explorers on this earth,” he said. “And we must never stop being explorers. If I had stopped, I would not have been able to open up new possibilities for others like myself....”
He laughs as he describes his speech that day, how he ended (as always) by asking for volunteers. He was wearing his “turn-outs,” the baggy trousers and jacket and boots firemen wear. Underneath he wore his uniform.
“Now, no one knows about the amputation,” he says. “So I’m getting help out of my turn-outs — the jacket and trousers — while I’m talking about what I’ve been able to do, ‘Firefighter of the Year,’ and so forth. Then I ask for someone from the audience to help me take off my left boot. Always the left boot first. Somebody helps, and I get that off. Now, I’m still talking about being an explorer when that shoe comes off, and then I ask for help with my right shoe.
“Another kid comes up and he’s pulling and pulling on my right boot...”
And while he is struggling with the boot, McElroy secretly releases the leg.
“Not just the boot but the foot comes flying off, and the kid, he’s just standing there!” McElroy laughs.
“...and if I had stopped being an explorer,” he always finishes while standing on one leg, “nobody would have ever thought somebody like me would be here today.”
In his cage, Paulie the green parakeet breaks into song.